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Cancer Research UK

How a recognition programme helped align people with the organisation’s values

Anonymous survey respondent


Cancer Research UK (Our Heroes)

It's less about the reward aspect and more about feeling valued and recognised.
Anonymous survey respondent

How Cancer Research UKcreated an impactful programme to enhance recognition and align people with the organisation’s values.


Back in 2013, CRUK’s ‘Your Say’ Employee Engagement Survey, ran by People Insight, highlighted recognition as an area for improvement – particularly on “day to day” as opposed to “big” stuff, which existing Directorate recognition focused on. Individuals reported feeling valued by their managers, suggesting we needed to do more than raising individual manager capability around recognition.

engagement award

Whilst engagement with our brand was high, anecdotal feedback was that our underpinning beliefs were not fully understood and were not driving higher performance. External research highlights recognition as an effective way to encourage desired behaviours and create strong role models outside of formal performance processes. So we saw an opportunity to both enhance recognition and align people with our values.

Existing recognition initiatives had been successful but only operated ‘within’ directorates rather than cross-charity and were inconsistent. They were more often annual rather than ‘in the moment’, which has been proven to have more impact in driving performance. Applying consistency rather than relying on individual manager inclination, and increasing financial transparency to ensure fair use of charity income was therefore an additional benefit sought.

Our vision and goalsfor recognition & reward

Our vision was to create an innovative, cost effective, simple to use online system with engaging branding that would enable cross-directorate and peer-to-peer recognition throughout the year.

Small tangible awards could be awarded with easy line manager approval. The approach would be aligned to our brand values to bring this to life.

More significant annual awards were also set-up for truly outstanding demonstration of our values in order to create buzz and a highly visible acknowledgement of the importance of our people to achieving our strategy.

The outcomes we sought were to:

  • Reinforce that we value our workforce for their everyday contribution, and that every single person plays a role in beating cancer sooner
  • Increase opportunities for peer to peer as well as manager recognition to reflect our desire for greater empowerment
  • Embed our brand beliefs as desired ways of working
  • Highlight role models to provide inspiration
  • Increase staff engagement and motivation for high performance
  • Build on the excellent local practice and enable true cross-directorate recognition to emphasise the importance of collaboration to achieving our goals.

‘Our Heroes:Extraordinary people, extraordinary effort’

As a charity we’re constantly under pressure to justify spend. We primarily used engaging branding, comms and small but meaningful rewards, emphasising the peer nature of the Our Heroes scheme, rather than relying on a flashy system or large reward pots.

‘Our Heroes’ is underpinned by our Brand Beliefs, which are carefully tailored to CRUK rather than being generic values you may find in other organisations. Our nomination categories were based on the beliefs, with categories translated into language that resonated for the charity. For instance, an Accelerator category was created which tied in with the language of accelerating progress from our strategy re-launch. We also emphasized non-tangible recognition, for instance leadership visibility, peer recognition and a range of events rather than monetary rewards. colleagues of all the achievements made since the survey.

There were three tiers to the awards:

  1. Online, cost neutral peer-to-peer recognition via branded emails and ‘thank you’ notes
  2. Token ‘thank you’ award provided via our existing Employer Benefits platform rather than a separate system
  3. Annual awards hosted by our Executive Board

Creating a buzz

We focused first on launching the annual scheme to create a buzz and engage people with the scheme. Firstly we launched the scheme as part of a ‘Living our Brand’ week, full of a range of activities to help people understand our brand.

Next nominations were sought from across the charity via physical nomination cards dropped at desks, talks by leadership, posters and an online campaign. Winners/runners up were selected by a panel of employees. As the majority of our employees are regionally based, all nominated individuals were specially invited to come to the awards, which were hosted by our CEO and Board of Directors.

The ceremony was live streamed to regional offices across the UK and broadcasted across our secure You Tube channel to allow staff from Guernsey to Glasgow to watch the ceremony.

We also hosted a VIP after party for all winners and their managers so they could network with the Board of Directors and CEO.

The buy-in from leadership was phenomenal, and as well as contributing themselves in nominating team members, the visibility of this group through all stages as sponsors and in handing out the awards was very well received. This meant engagement and buy-in for the ongoing scheme was already strong as ‘Our Heroes’ was seen to be something people wanted to be part of.

Aligned to ourpriorities

The driver for creating the Our Heroes awards came from the Staff Engagement survey, ran by People Insight, as well as feedback from across the business. In the Engagement Survey just 55% of the organisation answered positively to the question: “I feel valued and recognised for the work that I do”. Continually seeking to improve engagement is a key priority for the charity.

Award categories are defined and aligned to the charity’s organisational beliefs i.e. what we feel will drive our success. Each belief category highlights a particular characteristic shown to be of strategic importance to the continued success and growth of the charity.


The scheme name ‘Our Heroes: Extraordinary people, extraordinary effort’ reflects the fact we seek to recognise that every one of our people plays a critical role in achieving our strategy. To achieve the vision set out in our new long-term strategy will require a shift in performance and thinking. We are already a successful organisation, but looking to highlight specific traits that are keenly associated with high performers is a different approach. Using these traits in our recruitment selection and reinforcing them in our day to day activity through programmes like Our Heroes has created an environment where freedom to think creatively, making brave decisions and being confident in our messaging is seen as the norm not the exception.

What has been the impactof the programme?

We received over 350 award nominations in the first year and over 250 ongoing awards, reaching 25% of the charity. Footage of the awards ceremony was the most widely viewed company-wide broadcast at the time on YouTube. In particular the recognition scheme heavily adopted by our Retail teams, historically a hard to reach group, and we believe it is driving retention and engagement in those teams.

We have seen a 7% increase in our engagement score for the question: “I feel valued and recognised for the work that I do”. Follow-up research with People Insight found that Our Heroes has played a central part in driving the high levels of engagement at CRUK (Piper Research).

You can achieve the benefitsof recognition without complex systems or large financial payouts

The system was developed in house, in 3 months, using our current intranet and employee benefits platform so costs were minimal. The value of rewards were also set at a level that would be meaningful but also in line with acceptable use of charity funds.

It’s an example to the private sector that you can achieve the benefits of recognition without complex systems or large financial payouts. The key to success is having the right mindset to create something meaningful and then engaging people and leadership so that they feel ownership of the scheme.

Recognition has improved, as has confidence in our leadership and awareness of our beliefs. Our Heroes is an initiative we feel justifiably proud of and would love for it to been seen as an example other organisations could learn from.